Salon Author: Let's Make Google, Amazon and Facebook 'Public Utilities'

July 13th, 2014 10:28 AM

Richard (RJ) Eskow, "a writer, consultant, and Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America's Future," is a certified "respectable" lefty. So as much as the idea which follows may seem laughable, it shouldn't be dismissed as the unhinged rant of someone with no influence engaging in some isolated "thought experiment" which isn't shared by others in leftyland.

Eskow, in a Tuesday column at Salon, advocated regulating Internet titans Google, Amazon and Facebook as "public utilities." His justification is that they "define our lives," they're "close to monopolies," and besides, employing a breezy myth still held by many in the press, "Big Tech was created with publicly developed technology." Read on (the headline overstates Eskow's position; bolds are mine):

Let’s nationalize Amazon and Google: Publicly funded technology built Big Tech
They're huge and ruthless and define our lives. They're close to monopolies. Let's make them public utilities


They’re huge, they’re ruthless, and they touch every aspect of our daily lives. Corporations like Amazon and Google keep expanding their reach and their power. Despite a history of abuses, so far the Justice Department has declined to take antitrust actions against them. But there’s another solution.

Is it time to manage and regulate these companies as public utilities?

That argument’s already been made about broadband access. ...

Broadband as a public utility? If not for corporate corruption of our political process, that would seem like an obvious solution. Instead, our nation’s wireless access is the slowest and costliest in the world.

But why stop there? Policymakers have traditionally considered three elements when evaluating the need for a public utility: production, transmission, and distribution. Broadband is transmission. What about production and distribution?

The Big Tech mega-corporations have developed what Al Gore calls the “Stalker Economy,” manipulating and monitoring as they go. But consider: They were created with publicly funded technologies, and prospered as the result of indulgent policies and lax oversight. They’ve achieved monopoly or near-monopoly status, are spying on us to an extent that’s unprecedented in human history, and have the potential to alter each and every one of our economic, political, social and cultural transactions.

No matter how they spin it, these corporations were not created in garages or by inventive entrepreneurs. The core technology behind them is the Internet, a publicly funded platform for which they pay no users’ fee. In fact, they do everything they can to avoid paying their taxes.

... Big Tech’s use of public technology means that it operates in a technological “commons,” which they are using solely for its own gain, without regard for the public interest. Meanwhile the United States government devotes considerable taxpayer resource to protecting them – from patent infringement, cyberterrorism and other external threats.

Eskow goes on to chronicle certain market position-abusing tactics of the three behemoths to justify his position. To the extent he is correct about any of them, they should be grounds for either prosecution or new legislation, not public utility treatment.

His premise is an echo of the "You didn't build that" arguments advanced by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama during their U.S. Senate and presidential reelection campaigns, respectively.

Eskow's contention that the government gets sole credit for researching and building the "core technology" of the Internet is shaky at best. In 2012, as he attempted to "debunk" a claim made by Gordon Crovitz at the Wall Street Journal that Xerox deserved full credit, Robert McMillan at Wired tracked down Robert Taylor, the guy who left "the Department of Defense’s ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) Information Processing Technologies program in the 1960s to run Xerox PARC’s computer lab," and got the following response:

Xerox invented a lot more than just Ethernet. And many of the things that came out of Xerox — the PC and the graphical user interface — were crucial to the internet as we know it today, according to Robert Taylor, who we interviewed Monday.

To hear Taylor tell it, finding the inventor of the internet is a bit like finding the inventor of the blues. Its origins are murky and complex.

“The origins of the internet include work both sponsored by the government and Xerox PARC, so you can’t say that the internet was invented by either one alone,” he says.

So the government didn't solely build it.

Eskow's missive is an insult to Jeff Bezos, Google's founders, and Mark Zuckerberg, who, though far less than perfect in many respects (and who isn't?), built mulitibillion dollar businesses which have transformed how the world works, and mostly for the better.

Even if we accept Eskow's claim that the Internet was an entirely "a publicly funded platform" (which I don't), allowing the government to regulate its major players indefinitely would be like giving the original venture investors in any enterprise — be it high-tech Apple, Amazon, Facebook Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft or lower-tech companies — permanent veto power over managements' decisions. The results would be suboptimal, to say the least.

As to these entities' untouchable power, weren't people saying the same things about Microsoft, IBM, General Motors, and Apple (in music and phones) during the past several decades? Somehow, other competitors kept raising the bar and showed that these companies were not as invincible as once thought.

One can only begin to imagine how much innovation and economic growth would slow down if the government got its greedy hands on entities like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others in the tech sector as their "public utility" regulators. Of course, as should be the case across the board, to the extent these companies are actually violating real laws, they should be prosecuted. Otherwise, history has shown that leaving them alone is a better idea than having the government start vetoing  or dictating their moves.

And here's a parting shot: Richard, if these companies "define" your life, you need to go out and get one for yourself.

Cross-posted at